Solving the Very First Decision of the Game

To be fair, the title only counts for 50% of your games.

Play or draw? That is the question for this article. I’m a player that puts himself on the draw way too often, but I think the average player doesn’t think enough about this question.

Let’s start with some warm-up exercises:
You are playing a mirror match, and your deck consists of 60 split cards. The question: Should you be on the play or on the draw, and why?

  1. All your cards are Island/Vaporkin split cards. Play or draw?
  2. All your cards are Mountain/Shock split cards. Play or draw?
  3. All your cards are Forest/Grizzly Bears. Play or draw?

You can read the solutions later in the article. Caution: They might not be as easy as you’d expect!

Changes in the Last Few Years

I started playing competitive Magic when Invasion came out, and I loved playing Sealed and Draft. I also played Constructed, even though my decks looked more like Draft decks back then.

Common sense in Sealed was to draw first—in Draft we often did as well (starting with Mercadian Masques Draft). I also built various Standard decks that I actively wanted to put on the draw.

Nowadays, drawing first in Draft isn’t a consideration for 99% of players anymore, and even in Sealed, most people advocate against drawing first. And don’t even start talking about drawing first in Constructed.

What has changed in the last few years:

Power Creep

Creatures are getting better, and spells, especially removal, are getting worse. Creatures are usually better on the play since attacking your 2-drop into your opponent’s 2-drop feels way better than attacking into their 3-drop. Also, missing your 2-drop on the play won’t cost you the game as often as doing so on the draw. Trading resources favors the player on the draw, since tempo matters less and the player on the draw has an additional card for each of their turns. Having aggressive creature mechanics like exert won’t let you trade creatures, so you need removal for that. But since removal is so expensive these days you won’t be able to interact with creatures in the early game and die to their fast critters more often than not.

Since your quality cards in Limited are mostly creatures, you therefore should be on the play more often.

The New Mulligan Scry Rule

While drawing first used to be kind of an insurance against mulligans, the new scry rule gives you a kind of replacement insurance. There are fewer mulligans to 5, and therefore there are fewer free losses. Also, aggressive decks don’t care as much if they have 6 or 7 cards that line up well. The scry helps you find these pieces. Midrange decks still need those 7 cards more desperately since they need a certain amount of lands to play their relevant spells.


Even though these are mythics nowadays and you don’t run into them as often as you did back in Lorwyn when they were rare, they have a big influence on the tempo of the game. You always want to play these on a board that is as stable as possible, and being on the play grants you that.

What Could Wizards Improve?

I’m not a game designer, but think about this:

Compensate: If you are on the draw this game, you gain compensate.

Renewed Faith in R&D
2W, Instant, Gain 6 life.
Cycling 1W, gain 2 life.
Compensate – Gain 8/4 life instead

Sad Panda, Always Last Bear in the Row
Legendary Bear, 1G, 2/2
Compensate – Gets +0/+2 and a store credit coupon

Fun Police Officer
1R, 2/1 First Strike
Compensate – Haste

Make Cancel great again
1UU, Counter target spell
Compensate – Costs 1 less

Ravenous Rats of Death
1B, 1/1
When RRoD enters the battlefield, target player discards a card.
Compensate – Lifelink and deathtouch

And so on… you get the point.

You don’t have to overdo them in a set to keep the question of play or draw interesting, but having a common cycle, as well as some interesting rares for Constructed (in which the die roll often decides games) per set would actually help a lot to make Magic more interesting.

Riddle Me This

Here are the solutions to the warm-up exercises:

  1. This one is actually easy. You should always be on the play, and you should play up to 4 lands and as many Vaporkins per turn as you can. Easy start, easy win.
  2. You need 10 Shocks to kill your opponent, and you need to play 2 lands to do this most efficiently. So you need 12 cards, which you have access to on turn 6 on the play and turn 5 on the draw. The problem here is that if you’re on the draw, you actually need to play a third land since with only 2 lands out, you can only cast 9 Shocks until turn 5. So you need to be on the play again. Things become clearer if you substitute Shock with Lightning Bolt, and things change if you swap Shock with Twin Bolt.
  3. Here comes the most complex one, even though it looks deceptively easy. Most people solve this riddle on 3 levels, and many only arrive at level 1.

Level 1: You should be on the draw. Since all the Bears trade in combat, you want to be the one with the extra Bear.

Level 2: The extra Bear you have will get blocked by the Bear your opponent draws and plays for their turn. That means that no Bear will ever get through. Which again means that the player drawing first will die from an empty library first. Duh! You should be on the play then!

Level 3: Wrong. If both players know the scenario, you will definitely win by being on the draw. If your opponent keeps their hand, you mulligan to 6. This means that they will die first with an empty library. If your opponent mulligans, then don’t make the mistake of forcing them to mulligan to 0 with you. Just keep your hand. Now you have 2 more Bears than they do, one of which trades against their freshly drawn one, while the other gets in for damage. GG!

Bonus Level: Wait, that means you cannot win on the play? Don’t worry, there’s always a way out: 2 Explores.

If you liked these riddles, try to solve:

Also feel free to post your own riddles in the comments.

I hope you enjoyed part 1 of this article. In part 2, I will draw some comparisons between Magic and other games, especially Hearthstone, regarding possible ways to compensate going second, and give you some tools and examples when you actually want to be on the draw in Limited and Constructed.


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